Gabe had little interest in babies. He would rather talk to Frolic, the old, overweight dog asleep on the floor, than to Matthew and Annabelle, with their grabby hands and screechy giggles. He was relieved when Kira finally took them off to bed. It amused him that Jonas kissed their sweaty little necks and called night-night affectionately as they toddled off with their mother.
But still. Still. He felt an enormous sadness that he didn’t entirely understand, when he watched Kira with her children. He felt a loss, a hole in his own life. Had anyone—all right: any woman—ever murmured to him that way, or brushed crumbs gently from his cheek? Had anyone ever mothered him? Jonas had told him no. “A manufactured product,” Jonas had said, describing his origins sadly.
But he thought he remembered something else. A dim blur, that’s all; but it was there. Someone had held him, had whispered to him. Someone had loved him once. He was sure of it. He was sure he could find it. Could find her. If only the stupid boat . . .
“Try to stay awake, Gabe. I know it’s been a long day. But I want to talk to you.”
He had been drifting off. Gabe shook himself fully awake and took another sip from his cup of tea. “About Trade Mart?” he asked. “I barely remember it. Just listening to people talk about it. It was creepy in some way. But kind of exciting. We always wanted to sneak in, me and the other boys.”
“It had been going on for years,” Jonas described. “I never paid much attention to it until I became Leader. Then I began to see that . . .” He paused when Kira came into the room, carrying a cup of tea. She sat down in a nearby chair.
“I’m telling Gabe about Trade Mart.”
Kira nodded. “I wasn’t here then,” she told Gabe, “but Jonas has described it to me.” She made a face and shivered slightly. “Scary.”
Gabe didn’t say anything. He wondered why they were talking about an event that had ended years before.
“It had always seemed to me like a simple entertainment,” Jonas said. “Everyone got dressed up. There was a lot of merriment to their preparations. But as I got older I began to sense that there was always a nervousness to it, an uneasiness. So when I became Leader I began going, to watch.”
Gabe yawned. “So what happened, exactly?” he asked politely.
“It was a kind of ritualized thing. Every now and then this man appeared in the village—he always wore strange clothes, and talked in an odd, convoluted way. He was called Trademaster. He got up on the stage and called people forward one by one. Then he invited them to make trades.”
“Trades?” Gabe asked. “Meaning what?”
“Well, people would tell him what they most wanted. They’d say it loudly. Everyone could hear. And then they told him what they were willing to trade for it. But they whispered that part.”
Gabe looked puzzled. “Give me an example,” he said.
“Suppose it was your turn. You would go to the stage, and tell Trademaster what you wanted most. What might you ask for?”
Gabe hesitated. He couldn’t put into words, really, the thing he truly wanted. Finally he shrugged. “A good boat, I guess.”
“And then you would whisper to him what you were willing to trade away in order to get it.”
Gabe made a face. “I don’t have anything.”
“Most people think that. And they thought that, then. But they found otherwise. He suggested to them that they trade parts of themselves.”
Gabe sat up straighter, more awake, intrigued now. “Like a finger or something? Or an ear? There’s a woman here in the village who only has one ear. The other got chopped off before she came here. As punishment for something, I think. There are places that do those kinds of horrible punishments.”
“I know. And I know the woman you mean. You’re right. She escaped from a place with a cruel government.
“But Trademaster was asking for something different. You had to trade—let me think how to describe it—part of your basic character.”
“Well, if you wanted a boat, he’d be able to provide that. But let’s think about your character, Gabe. You’re—what? Energetic, I’d say.”
“And smart. I do pretty well in school.”
“Well, I’m honest. That’s true. I’m not always likable. I’m pretty mean to Simon sometimes.”
Jonas chuckled. “Well, you’re energetic. Agreed?”
“Yes. I’m energetic.”
“Let’s use that, just for the example. Suppose Trademaster could give you a really fine boat, Gabe. You’d have to trade for it, though. You’d have to trade your energy. You’d be on the stage. He’d whisper to you what the trade would consist of. No one would be able to hear. Just you. But then he’d say loudly: ‘Trade?’ And you’d have to reply.”
“Easy. A fine boat? I’d say, ‘Trade!’”
“He’d write it down.”
“And I’d get my boat.”
“You would. I never knew of anyone asking for a boat, so I don’t know how it would appear. But he had amazing powers. Probably a fine boat would be waiting for you the next day, at the river.”
“Yes!” Gabe was wide awake now, fascinated by the thought of how easily he might have obtained a boat.
“But don’t forget: you would have made a trade for it. And your energy would have been taken from you. You might wake up the next morning and be unable to get out of bed.”
“So I’d rest for a day till I felt energetic.”
“Gabe, Trademaster has enormous power. He could take your energy permanently.”
“So I’d be in a wheeled chair or something for the rest of my life?”
“All right, that wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t trade my energy.”
“But what would your other choices be?”
Gabe thought. “Honesty. Smartness. I could maybe trade one of those.”
“Think about it.”
“Well, I could trade my honesty. Then I’d be a dishonest person, but I’d have a really good boat.” He shrugged. “That might work.”
Jonas laughed. “Anyway,” he said, “that’s what Trade Mart was all about. It began to corrupt the people of the village. They traded away the best parts of themselves, the way you would have, in order get the foolish things they thought they wanted, or needed.”
“A boat isn’t foolish,” Gabe argued. He yawned.
Jonas got up and went to where the teakettle was simmering. He made himself another cup of tea. “Kira? Tea?” he asked, but she shook her head.
“Take my word for it, Gabe,” he said when he sat back down. “Trademaster was taking control of this village. And he was pure evil. It became clear when Matty died. That was the end of Trade Mart.”
Gabe saw that Kira had put her hands to her face. She had been very close to Matty.
They all were silent for a moment. Outside, it had begun to rain. They could hear it against the roof. Then Jonas said, “I want to talk to you, Gabe, about powers.”
“Powers?” Gabe suddenly felt uneasy. They were entering a realm that they had approached before.
“Maybe a better word is ‘gifts.’ I have a certain power, or gift. It became apparent when I was young, twelve or so. I was able to focus on something and will myself to see . . .”
He sighed, and looked at Kira. “I don’t know how to describe this to him,” he said.
Kira tried. “Jonas can see beyond, Gabe. He can see to another place. But he has to work very hard at it. It depletes him.”
“And the power is ebbing,” Jonas added. “I can feel that it’s leaving me. Kira is experiencing the same thing.”
“You mean she has a gift too?”
“Mine’s different. Mine has always been through my hands,” Kira explained. “I realized it the way Jonas did, when I was young. My hands began to be able to do things—to make things—that an ordinary pair of hands can’t. But now . . .”
She smiled. “It’s leaving me, as well. And that’s all right. I think Jonas and I don’t need these gifts anymore. We’ve used them to create our life here. We’ve helped others. And our time of such powers is passing now. But we’ve talked about you, Gabe. We feel certain that you have some kind of gift.”
“I felt it when you were very young, Gabe,” Jonas said. “When I took you and escaped the place where we were. I’ve been waiting for it to make itself known to you.” He looked at Gabe as if something might become apparent at that moment. Gabe shifted uncomfortably on the couch.
“Well,” he said finally, “it’s not a gift for boatbuilding, is it?”
Jonas chuckled. “No,” he said. “But you’re very determined. That serves you well. And I think you’re going to need that determination, and your energy—in fact, all your attributes—plus whatever special gift you haven’t discovered yet—”
I have discovered it, Gabe thought. I can veer. But he stayed silent. He simply didn’t feel ready to tell them.
“—because you have a hard job ahead of you,” Jonas continued.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m going to use the last of my own power,” Jonas said. “I’m going to see beyond one final time.”
“Why?” asked Kira, startled.
Gabe echoed her. “Why?”
“I have to find out where Trademaster is,” Jonas told them both. “He’s still out there somewhere. He’s quite near. And he’s terribly dangerous.”
The rain had become louder, drenching, and a wind had risen. Tree branches whipped against the side of the house. Kira rose suddenly from her chair and pulled a window closed. Jonas paid no attention. “And Gabe?” he said. “When I find him . . .”
Gabe waited. He was wide awake now.
“It’s going to be up to you, then. You must destroy him.”
“Me? Why me? He’s nothing to do with me!”
Jonas took a deep breath. “It’s everything to do with you, Gabe. But it’s a very long story. I was going to tell it to you tonight, but I can see how tired you are. And it’s late. Let’s get some sleep now. And in the morning I’ll explain it to you.”
The leaves dripped onto the wet grass, but the rain had stopped and a pale sun had risen. It was late morning now and Gabe was just waking. He had slept fitfully on the couch until finally, nudged awake by the houshold noises, he yawned and opened his eyes. He watched Kira tending the children. In her soft voice she spoke firmly to Matthew, who was trying to grab a toy from his sister. Annabelle held it tightly in her fist and looked defiantly at her brother. “No!” she said.
Kira laughed. When she saw that Gabe was awake, she turned away from the little ones.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. “You slept a long time.”
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